Can wine be evil? Stories that haven’t been told #ewbc

In the first panel/round table where I spoke at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Brescia a few weeks ago, I was asked “to defend the written” word as a medium for wine blogging (here’s my post on my “defense”).

In the second panel, organizer and curator Ryan Opaz asked me and the other participants to talk about “stories that haven’t been told” in wine blogging.

The different panelists had widely divergent approaches to the subject but wine writer and blogger Elisabetta Tosi made a point that resonated with me.

In Italy, she said, wine marketers continue to tell wine stories in terms of family and tradition, focusing on the generational continuity and historical significance of the wines and the wineries. Most, she observed, neglect to talk about the quality of the wine itself, concentrating solely on the cultural value of the wine.

Her point aligned with mine: I believe that, although there are some notable exceptions, English-language wine writers favor technical descriptions of the wines they cover, from how they are produced to how they taste; in Europe, where wine writing is not as rigidly codified as it is on this side of the pond, I find that wine (and culture desk) writers tend to discuss wines in terms of their cultural value and context.

To her point, I added that while English-language writers tend to limit their descriptions and assessments to the technical merits and flaws of the wines, European writers view wines as ideological and even ethical expressions of their respective nations. In other words, where Antonio Galloni — a writer and Italian wine expert whom I admire greatly — will provide tasting and vintage notes for a wine by Bartolo Mascarello, an Italian writer will attempt to delineate the epistemological implications of the winery, the winemaker, and his wines (as in this post, where a blogger lists the authors he finds on Bartolo’s shelves: “Togliatti, Longo, Marx, Liberovici, Marcuse”; can you imagine James Suckling even contemplating such authors?).

A great illustration of this divide came up in the feed today, when leading Italian wine writer and top Italian wine blogger Franco Ziliani published a post entitled “Americans are the only ones capable of believing in the fairytale of a ‘Chiantified’ Merlot.”

In the post, Franco examines a review of a Ricasoli Merlot by W. Blake Gray in which the American writer praises the winery for a “Chiantified Merlot,” his “favorite wine in the portfolio.”

Nonplussed, Franco decries Gray’s claim that the wine is “a positive example of internationalization.”

“How the devil can you take people like this seriously?” asks Franco. The lunacy of Gray’s assessment and Ricasoli’s approach to internationalized wines for the American market is self-evident in Franco’s view and that of his readers.

In America, wine writers and wine shoppers and winemakers think of wine solely as a luxury product. In Europe, they think of wine as an indispensable nutrient, even when proposed in its most elitist expressions. In America we describe how it was made and how it tastes. In Europe, wine writers address a given wine’s technical achievement and its inherent quality but they do not shy from its ideological and ethical implications.

There’s nothing wrong in asking whether a wine is good or bad, in my view. In fact, I believe that mundane assessment of wine is a wonderfully rich pretext for a deeper understanding of humanity and our humanness. But I also believe that we must approach wines metaphysically, in other words, beyond their physical limitations. Beyond asking whether a wine is good or bad, I told the audience who attended the panel, we should be asking whether or not a wine is good or evil.

Although it’s not the only story that has yet to be told, I believe it is the most urgent one that awaits our attention, our utterance, and our articulation.

Thanks for reading…

(In the photos above: St. Francis of Assisi, Mussolini, Palmiro Togliatti, and a group of old men playing cards in Borgonato in Franciacorta, province of Brescia.)

96 Giacosa Rabajà, 90 Struzziero Taurasi, 82 Antinori Chianti Classico, holy crap

From the department of “that’s what friends are for”…

Lots of good folks came out last night to share well wishes and good thoughts on my last visit to Los Angeles and Sotto for the year.

Schachter pulled out all the stops, reaching deep into his cellar for his last bottle of 1996 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Rabajà (white label) — honestly one of the best bottle of wine I’ve ever had. True to the legacy of the Rabajà cru, this mighty wine — from what many believe to be the greatest vintage of that decade — delivered aromas of mint and tar and earthy, savory flavors before revealing delicate, sublime fruit…

Keep smiling, keep shining, knowing you can always count on me, for sure.

Later in the evening, Anthony, Lars (who was in from Chicago), and Dan came in for a late-night dinner at the end of my shift.

Dan brought a number of incredible bottles, including the 1990 Taurasi Riserva by Struzziero (classic blended Aglianico with no vineyard designation). I’d only ever tasted Struzziero back to 1993 (which we have on the list at Sotto) and I was blown away by the elegance and the balance of this wine, still so fresh and with the vibrant acidity that traditional Aglianico can deliver. Another best-ever wine, with gorgeous ripe red fruit and an ethereal earthiness that prompted Lars and me to call this top wine in the flight.

And now there’s so much more I see, And so by the way I thank you.

Although no show-stopper like the Struzziero Taurasi, the 1982 Chianti Classico Riserva by Antinori was fantastic — a wine, we all agreed, from a time before America, California, and Parker, a wine from a time when Antinori still made wine. Classic Sangiovese, with impressive acidity for a wine this old and delicious plum and red stone fruit flavor. It was a fantastic pairing for the sous-vide Wagyū tongue that chef Steve sent over to our table. Loved this wine and the now forgotten era of Tuscan winemaking for which it spoke to me.

My goodness… From my baby shower to all the hugs that the staff gave me before we said good-bye, from the camaraderie, solidarity, and thrilling wines to the wishes that our friends shared with me on this last trip to Los Angeles… I know that I never would have emerged from the darkness of my life before to reach this magical, blessed moment… what a year it’s been… someday I’ll tell Baby P all about it…

Oh and then for the times when we’re apart, well then close your eyes and know, the words are coming from my heart.

Pairing wine and baby food at my baby shower @SottoLA

The staff at Sotto threw me a surprise baby shower today.

One of the activities was pairing Gerber’s baby food with wines from our list…

The challenge wasn’t so much the pairing but how nasty the baby food tasted!

And the winner is… Cantele Salice Salentino with Lasagne with Meat Sauce (!!!!????)!

Seriously, it was so sweet of them that it made me cry… It’s so true what everyone says: you’ll never know how having a baby will change your life until it happens to you… I’m living that now and it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world…

Thanks, everyone! On a day when I’m feeling terribly homesick for Tracie and Baby P, you really made smile, laugh, and cry a tear of happiness… means the world to me…

Casavecchia, a wine to be “jealous” of @SottoLA

Very little is known about Casavecchia, a grape variety believed to have been cultivated and highly prized for winemaking in antiquity and then forgotten by modernity.

According to legend, the ampelonym — Casavecchia or old house — refers to the ruins of an ancient Roman home where farmers rediscovered this generous however mysterious grape, with berries so big and juicy that many were tempted to grow the variety for table fruit.

Some hold that Casavecchia was the grape used for a wine the Romans called Trebulanum, probably after the ancient city of Trebula (modern-day Treglia, in the Pontelatone municipality in Caserta).

In the 1990s, when the interest in indigenous grape varieties surged, a number of producers began bottling Casavecchia and there were a handful of labels available in New York while I was living there in the mid-2000s.

Last night, we debuted Trebulanum by the Alois winery at Sotto in Los Angeles. An old-school large-cask-aged expression of the grape, it’s the best 100% Casavecchia available in the U.S. today imho.

The wine is chewy and tannic, with bright, bright acidity you wouldn’t expect in a wine with this much tannic structure.

It’s easy to see why the farmers of Caserta are so “jealous” of this wine, at least according to one folktale I found. They say that the farmer guardians of this magical wine blended other grapes into the bottlings they sold to the city folk who had made the journey inland to procure the coveted stuff.

No need to worry, Angelenos: we’re pouring it liberally tonight at the restaurant!

Come down and see me if you’re in town…

Scenes from a (Southern) Italian restaurant… @SottoLA

Pour it, swirl it, smell it, taste it, touch it, kiss it! IT’S FINALLY HERE! The 2008 Cirò Classico by ‘A Vita, made from 100% Gaglioppo grapes, by my friend, the inimitable Francesco Maria De Franco (whom you may remember from the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Project).

You can taste it with me tonight and tomorrow night at Sotto in Los Angeles.

BTW, the abbreviation on the label “F 36 P 27” refers to folio (page) 36, parcel 27 — the vineyard’s listing in the Italian government’s official registry of growing sites.

The year isn’t over yet but I’m going on record: Francesco’s wine is “my top wine for 2011.”

We still don’t have his top-tier wine but I believe that both this and his Rosso Classico Superiore (which I retasted this month in Brescia at the VinNatur table at the European Wine Bloggers Conference) are destined to gain entrance to the pantheon of the greatest wines of Italy.

I love it that much! (And wanted to share this second photo so that you can see the bright color of the noble, tannic wine.)

Sotto was hopping last night and I was psyched to debut a bunch of new wines, including the ‘A Vita and three new wines from Alois (Campania)… more on those later…

There is so much good shit on the menu at Sotto but I just can’t resist Chef Zach’s pizza margherita.

If you happen to be in LA tonight or tomorrow night, come down and I’ll pour you some wine and spin you some wine tales!

In defense of the written word in wine blogging #ewbc

When Ryan Opaz asked me to “defend the written word as a medium of wine blogging” for a panel at the European Wine Bloggers Conference, I have to admit I was nonplussed.

My short talk was to be part of a panel entitled “Defending Storytelling” (here’s the video, btw) and each participant was charged with “defending” a medium: photography, video, oral storytelling, and the written word (my medium).

Isn’t the written word, I thought to myself, a sine qua non of wine blogging? And even though we use all sorts of media to “blog” (not “write”) about wine, isn’t writing at the core — literally and historically — of what we do as wine bloggers?

It occurred to me that Brescia, the conference host city, was once part of the Most Serene Republic of Venice and that at the height of the Venetian state’s power, the late-15th- and early 16th-century humanist printer Aldus Manutius developed the octavo book format — the world’s first pocket-sized book, an innovation that reshaped the way knowledge was consumed in Renaissance Europe. (That’s Aldus’s “device,” above, a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, a visual representation of his oxymoronic motto, festina lente, meaning hurry slowly, in other words, hurry to achieve as much as you can but do so thoroughly.)

He also created a new typeface, a cursive font (also above) that would revolutionize printing and would soon come to be known as italics (because they were invented in Italy). His inspiration for the new character was the humanist cursive (hand-written) script that had brought new clarity, precision, and elegance to literature in Europe in the early Renaissance.

In many ways, the Aldine revolution is not dissimilar from the blogging revolution: like the Aldine octavo and italic font, the new blogging media have reshaped the way information and knowledge are syndicated. And just as Aldus’s tiny books unchained readers from the elitist lecterns of dimly light reading rooms, the blogging medium has unleashed wine writing and opened a new frontier for the everyman who enjoys wine.

The written word, I said in my address, represents a continuity between the past and future of vinography (the retelling of wine in any medium) just as the Aldine cursive font represented a cohesion between the writing that came before and the writing that would follow.

Another example I made was the @ sign. Did you know that the earliest known use of the @ sign was an elided abbreviation that denoted an amphora full of wine? And while a Florentine is credited with the first known written instance of the symbol, it was during the height of the Venetian empire and the Venetian printing industry that the @ sign took the shape that we know it today.

Just ask any blogger if she/he has ever used italics or the @ sign: without this continuity of the written word we wine bloggers would not be here today, nor would we be here tomorrow.